Why Plateaus Occur & How To Overcome Them

It seems to me that plateaus are a fact of life faced by everyone who sets to out lose some serious weight and get fit and healthy. There are a number of reasons for them, and understanding why they occur can help you power through and stick to your program.

The reasons are as varied as are human beings, our genetics, age, personalities and likes and dislikes. Some of the more common ones (that I know of and have personally experienced) are below. The single MOST likely cause of a plateau early in your self guided program of weight loss and fitness is that you have gotten a bit loose with your program after achieving a measure of success and also have fallen a bit into a rut of boredom. This is only human. We set out with a good plan and great intentions and dig in. Six or eight weeks later we have lost 8, 10 maybe even 12 pounds and are feeling pretty good. Then we “slack off” a bit in several small ways that together add up to a big change. As we lose weight, our calorie needs also go down. Further complicating things, the human body is extremely adaptive and your body will fight to keep that fat on (it has become comfortable there and wants to hold on to those saved resources for leaner times). So, if you are on a plateau, here are some things to consider:

  1. First and foremost – make sure you really are sticking strictly to your “points” if using Weight Watchers (i.e. not sneaking in extra portions or bites, having little snacks that you “forget” to count, etc. Same goes for calorie counting strategies.
  2. It is possible that you are NOT really in a plateau. Specifically, have you been measuring “body fat percentage” and not just your weight as I suggest multiple times on the blog? How are your clothes fitting? The point here is that the scale may be stuck for a few weeks while your body adjusts and adapts, particularly if you are really hitting the exercise hard. In this situation, you indeed may have lost 2-3 pounds (or more) of fat, but then you put it back on in muscle. This is a GOOD thing. However, if you don’t measure, record and TRACK you won’t know for sure and that is a motivation killer. This has happened to me at least three times in the past year.
  3. Do you need to vary your diet? It is possible that you are restricting your calories TOO MUCH in an attempt to lose weight faster. This approach does not work … maybe for a short time but definitely not once you have shed a few extra pounds and started getting more fit. Our bodies NEED some fat and if you don’t give it what it needs it will burn the easiest form of stored fast energy (muscle) preferentially over fat. This is obviously counter productive when trying to lose weight and get stronger and fit. Also, some people’s bodies are SO ADAPTIVE that they slip into what is known as “starvation mode” very easily, with the same results (burning your muscle instead of fat). You MUST eat a healthy and reasonable number of calories daily and MUST give your body the nutrients it needs, including protein, carbs and some “good fats.”
  4. Did you drop weight very quickly when starting out and now find that you are still losing weight, but not as fast and now you are getting frustrated? This is not really a “plateau.” Rather, it is your body getting healthier and shifting your metabolism. If you are consistently (at first) losing more than 2 pounds a week, you are over doing it on calorie restriction and you WILL pay the price at some point. It is normal to lose more for the first weeks, perhaps even a month after starting out, but then things settle down. Set realistic goals and be patient with yourself!
  5. Consider your AVERAGE weight loss over longer periods (months) rather than just looking at your weekly scale numbers. My tracking spreadsheet does this for you, and I frequently had weeks where I lost 4-5 pounds after or just before weeks where I could not fight off a single pound. Here I cheated a bit, on weeks where I lost a bunch (knowing it was part of a bigger, longer process) I would only record and “credit” myself for 2 pounds. Why? Because I knew this meant the next week was going to be harder and then even if I only lost a half pound I could now record my true weight and feel better about my progress. Remember, our bodies are ridiculously adaptive! Also, swings in weight and also in “weight loss” of a few pounds from week to week is normal even in fit and healthy people. Take the longer view and track the trend and averages, and do not be too focused on just one or two weeks!
  6. Water intake. I cannot emphasize this enough. If you are not drinking enough water you just will not lose weight at the rate your diet and exercise plans merit on their own. Honestly, I do not really understand this and am not convinced that anyone does – but it is a fact. Bottom line, you MUST drink HALF YOUR BODY WEIGHT (in pounds) of water per day (in ounces). As I have said before, if you weigh 200 pounds, you MUST drink at least 100 ounces of water a day. Just find a way that works for you and do this!
  7. Has your body adjusted to a stagnant diet and exercise regimen? It absolutely will if you let it. For this particular point I am talking more about exercise. Have you stopped “pushing it” with your exercise regimen? To break through adaptation you MUST add intensity in your cardio exercise strategy as you get lighter and more fit and perhaps even more important you MUST add weight / resistance in your strength training regimen. I try to add 2+ pounds to the weights I use for my strength routine every few weeks – both increasing the “band strength” for those type of exercises and adding at least 1-2 pounds every two weeks to my dumbbell regimen. For cardio, you don’t necessarily need to add “longer workouts” so much as increased intensity and possibly variability. Try some other cardio exercises. Or, if you really like what you are doing now, ratchet up the intensity of your routine with a focus on maxing out your (still safe) exercise heart rate for your age. Push it!
  8. Alcohol is a killer, in many ways. I am not saying you cannot drink and have fun and such (assuming you are over 21). However, the MOST WORTHLESS AND EMPTY CALORIES that go straight to fat are those consumed in the form of alcohol. If you are taking in too much alcohol you can derail all the progress made in other areas. Set reasonable limits, track the calories (or points) religiously, and focus on moderation.
  9. Consider supplements. Is your body getting the micro-nutrients it needs to keep you healthy, active and to build muscle and burn fat? This is a bit different for everyone as age, gender and genetics all play a role here. Anyway, check out the page on supplements and give this topic some thought. By all means do your own research and reading on this too!
  10. Accuracy in tracking? Perhaps you think you really are sticking to your diet and exercise strategy, eating well, working out, ratcheting up intensity in exercise, drinking enough water and so on … and are still stuck. Make VERY sure that the numbers you are using to TRACK progress are accurate. Diet is more important than exercise when focusing on weight loss, but either way if you are using faulty tools to track your calorie intake, your BMR and/or your “real” calorie burn from activity and exercise – it does not take much to throw you off the rails. Use the right tools!! This is where tools like a “FitBit” or “Apple Watch” can be really helpful.

Comments are open on this page and I would LOVE to hear input and advice and stories from others who have succeeded in powering through plateaus! Please contribute!!


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